Linguistic and cultural diversity


Nicole Nepton

Source: Communautique

Montreal, April 29, 2005

At a study session organized by the World Forum on Community Networking and Communautique, participants reviewed a number of challenges which will be addressed by the second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). In an attempt to make proposals that would encourage socially responsible action on these issues, participants spoke of their concerns and expectations in the context of the emerging "information society." These will constitute the basis for further discussion at the Canada-wide conference slated to be held this May in Winnipeg, under the aegis of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO.

The study session's purpose was to bring together Quebec-based experts familiar with key issues facing WSIS and the Summit to be held in Tunis in November 2005. By bringing these issues to light, concerned community groups gained a better understanding of their implications for Quebec.

In addition to cultural diversity, other themes explored were:

  • Internet governance
  • funding the information society and the digital solidarity infrastructure
  • intellectual property rights, the digital divide, education, privacy, and access for people with disabilities
  • e-government and e-democracy

In his paper on cultural diversity, James Archibald, the director of Translation Studies at McGill University and the University's representative to WSIS, noted that one of the basic tenets of the Declaration of Principles [PDF] adopted at the Geneva Summit is the respect for cultural and linguistic identities around the world. The renewed debate over diversity will be the central focus of the Summit.

"You cannot build an information society without taking human diversity into account," Archibald asserted. States reaffirmed this principle in the "political chapeau" adopted in preparation for WSIS II. This means that the content of cyberspace will have to respect this diversity. Both UN member states and civil society hope to create a climate that will encourage development and make it possible for everyone to live together.

A working group, of which Archibald is a member, drawn from civil society is focussing on this question; it is one that will affect all of the fundamental concerns of the Summit. "As a means of preserving our universal heritage — our cultures, our languages and our traditional knowledge — the working group would like to encourage governments to make the commitment to embark on this course," he explained. Access to information and knowledge must also be guaranteed in ways that reflect diversity and respect cultural differences.

The governments that make up the Francophonie, including Canada, Quebec and Tunisia, the phase-two host country, espouse the principle of linguistic and cultural diversity.

But these same governments are working in the shadow of the principle of cultural exemptions. This principle would appear to be inconsistent with diversity. In a global context of cultural and linguistic diversity, who would benefit from such exemptions?

The information society needs to foster the development of emerging knowledge and expertise which will have value in a variety of circumstances. States must also make allowances for many human and social issues; similarly, UN member states must make preserving and promoting languages and cultures, rather than allowing them to die, one of their objectives. This is the role of UNESCO, whose primary goal is to ensure that cultures and knowledge survive in their diversity.

This will be the question before the Canadian Commission for UNESCO in its ongoing consultations designed to help the Canadian delegation to WSIS consider these issues more exhaustively and to place us in a better position to implement the action plan slated to be adopted in Tunis in November 2005.

For more information:
Monique Chartrand, Executive Director
65 de Castelnau Street West, Suite 202,
Montreal, QC
H2R 2W3
514-948-6644 ext. 221